LSB 960, Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old – Reformation

Hymn author and composer: Dr. Martin Luther (1483-1546) – see the author/composer notes for LSB 655 at (accessed 25 October, AD 2021)

Hymn translator: Composite, committee that developed the 1941 TLH.

Hymn history:1

Wittenberg altarpiece of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), note, in the top center panel, Jesus presiding at the Lord’s Supper. Photo taken by Roni Grad
Recording of 10/31/2021 Study of Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old

Dr. Luther first reformed the Latin Mass in 1523, removing the false teaching of the Mass as a sacrifice to God and restoring the proper doctrine of the Mass as God’s service to us (Gottesdienst), in which we receive His gifts.2 In 1526, he developed the German Mass as a teaching service, “for the sake of the unlearned lay folk” who did not understand Latin.3 Dr. Luther wrote Isaiah Mighty Seer to be the Sanctus hymn in the German Mass.  Rather than translate the Sanctus from the Latin Mass, he wrote this hymn paraphrase of Isaiah 6:1-4, to show the original context of the “Holy Lord God of Sabaoth” phrase. He used the form of a Sequence, a prose or meter text sung from the late 8th century onward by the cantor and choir between the Epistle and Gospel readings, as a teaching tool to highlight the theme of the day.4 By adding this form in the Service of the Sacrament of the Altar, Dr. Luther was able to draw attention to the proper teaching about that which takes place in the Lord’s Supper.

Consider: Read Isaiah 6:1-7.  What might the church fathers have been thinking when they included the Sanctus in the Service of the Sacrament of the Altar?5 How does the Isaiah text support Dr. Luther’s (and the Lutheran Reformers’) teaching about the Mass (i.e. does the text speak of a work of man or a work of God)? How does the use of the Benedictus (“Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord” – Psalm 118:26a; Matthew 21:9 [Mark 11:9; Luke 19:38; John 12:13]) support this teaching?6 (Note that Dr. Luther did not incorporate the Benedictus into this hymn, see below.)

Dr. Luther wrote the hymn in rhyming couplets of 10 syllables, a pattern which is preserved in the English translations in TLH, LW and LSB.7 He intended for the Pastor to elevate the Sacrament while the hymn was being sung, a practice that Pr. Morehouse continues at CLC.

Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) wrote a setting of the Isaiah Mighty Seer, indicating its ongoing liturgical use in the aftermath of the early years of the Reformation. The Praetorius piece may be heard here:  (accessed 25 October, AD 2021; note the antiphonal singing of the Sanctus line Heilig ist Gott der Herre Zebaoth, “Holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth,” as described in Isaiah 6:3, note also that the Sanctus portion occupies a full 3 minutes of this 6 minute and 24 second piece).8  The hymn was sung in Bach’s Leipzig “on festival days and when there (were) many communicants.”9 The German text of the hymn appeared in Walther’s Hymnal (147) as a hymn for the Feast of the Holy Trinity.  Isaiah Mighty Seer first appeared in an English language LCMS hymnal in the 1941 TLH (249), also as a hymn for the Feast of the Holy Trinity.  As noted above, the translation was a composite that is continued in LSB (960) with some alterations.  An English translation by F. Samuel Janzow (1913-2001) was used in the 1982 LW (214).  Of note, in keeping with Dr. Luther’s original intent, the LW placed the hymn in the section of liturgical hymns.  This has been continued in LSB.

The alterations in LSB of the TLH text are as follows:
With flowing train that filled the Temple quite ➜ With robes that filled the temple courts with light
Above the throne were stately seraphim ➜ Above the throne were flaming seraphim
With twain they veiled their faces, as was meet ➜ With two they veiled their faces as was right
With twain in rev’rent awe they hid their feet ➜ With two they humbly hid their feet from sight
And with the other twain aloft they soared ➜ And with the other two aloft they soared
Behold, His glory filleth all the earth ➜ His glory fills the heavens and the earth

Dr. Luther adapted the hymn tune from a plainchant Sanctus used in the pre-Reformation church for Sundays in Advent and Lent.10 The chant tune appears to date back to at least the 14th century.  Of note, although Dr. Luther did not incorporate the Benedictus here, he kept the tune that accompanied it in the Latin liturgy, thus bringing it to mind for the members of the congregation.  Dr. Luther wrote Isaiah Mighty Seer in Lydian mode, a chant scale that begins on F and is similar to F-major but with a B natural rather than a B flat.  In the LCMS English language hymnals, the tune was transposed to D major, as this is easier for the congregation of today to sing.

Consider: Johann Walter (1496-1570), musical collaborator with Dr. Luther, who eventually became the first Lutheran Kantor (church musician), noted that in Isaiah Mighty Seer, Dr. Luther “fitted all the notes so masterfully and so well to the text…”11 Read Isaiah 6:3 and Matthew 21:9. Now sing, “Holy is God, the Lord of Sabaoth!  His glory fills the heavens and the earth!” How do the notes themselves illustrate the Scripture texts and Dr. Luther’s teaching on the Mass?  How might you recall the Benedictus when singing this?

Hymn text:

Vocabulary: Seer (prophet, person who sees visions); Lofty (exalted); Splendor (magnificent appearance, root is from “shine”); Seraphim (H8314, from H8313, saraph, to burn); Veiled (covered); Humbly (in a way that shows a low estimate of one’s importance: humus – ground); Sabaoth (H6635, army hosts); Beam (horizontal structure supporting ceilings or floors); Lintel (horizontal structure above windows and doors supporting the wall above them); Enwrapped (wrapped around)

Reread Isaiah 6:1-4 and consider the words of the Hymn.  In what, “day of old” does this take place? Read Exodus 13:21-22, 40:34-38; 1 Kings 8:10-11; Matthew 17:5 (Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35). Where is the Father in the Isaiah and the hymn texts? Read Exodus 28:33-34, 39:24-26 (parallel texts to the Hebrew for “train of his robe” in Isaiah 6:1, note specifically whose vestments are described); John 3:14, 12:41. Where is Jesus in the Isaiah and the hymn texts? Read 1 Corinthians 2:9-10.  Where is the Holy Spirit in the Isaiah and the hymn texts? Read Matthew 17:2 (Mark 9:3; Luke 9:29), and John 1:4-9, 8:12, 12:40-41. The LSB text specifically adds the detail, “with light” to, “filled the temple courts.” How might that be explained?  Reread the 5th and 6th measures of the hymn.  How does the text define, “Seraphim?”  Reread Isaiah 6:6-7.  On what basis does the LSB hymn text call them, “messengers?”  Read Exodus 33:20-23, Ezekiel 1:11 and reread Isaiah 6:2.  Why are God’s creatures, both men and angels, veiled in His presence?  Reread Isaiah 6:3 and read Revelation 4:8. What is the significance of the thrice-holy? Was Isaiah witnessing a one-time event? What does this mean for us when we sing the Sanctus (and in DS3 and DS4 the Benedictus)?  Reread Isaiah 6:4 and read Matthew 27:51, 28:2; John 12:16, 23, 21:19. Where was Jesus glorified? What natural event accompanied the manifestation of Jesus’ glory? How does this relate to the Lord’s Supper?

Consider: How is the Lord’s Supper trinitarian? What does God do with Isaiah in the aftermath of his vision (Isaiah 6:8-13)? What does God do with you in the aftermath of your receiving the Supper (consider the post-Communion collect)

End notes:

  1. Except where noted, information is from Thomas E. Lock, “Isaiah, mighty seer in days of old,” in Joseph Herl, Peter C. Reske and Jon D. Vieker, eds. Lutheran Service Book Companion to the Hymns, Volume 1 (St. Louis: CPH, 2019) pp. 1568-1572.
  2. “… the mass is neither a sacrifice nor a good work … We do accept it as a sacrament, a testament, the blessing (as in Latin), the eucharist (as in Greek), the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Memorial, communion, or by whatever evangelical name you please, as long as it is not polluted by the name of sacrifice or work.” Martin Luther, in An Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg, AE 53:22. See also AC XXIV, Ap XXIV, SA II II and others.
  3. Martin Luther, The German Mass and Order of Service, AE 53:63.
  4. Robin A. Leaver, Luther’s Liturgical Music, Principles and Implications (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017) p. 227. An example of a sequence may be seen in LSB 460.
  5. The Sanctus may have originated in North Africa around AD 200, see The Lutheran Liturgy, p. 331.  Its use appears to have begun in the West around AD 400, see E. J. Yarnold, SJ, “The Liturgy of the Faithful in the Fourth and Early Fifth Centuries,” in Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold SJ and Paul Bradshaw, eds. The Study of Liturgy, Revised Edition (London: SPCK and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) p. 232.
  6. The Benedictus may have been initially added to the Sanctus in Syria between AD 300 and AD 350, see “Liturgy of the Faithful,” in Study of Liturgy, p. 243, n.29.
  7. The German text of the hymn may be found at (accessed 25 October, AD 2021).
  8. For an extensive analysis of how the Praetorius setting accentuates the text of the hymn and the Isaiah 6 text, see Anne Catherine Grimes, “The Intersection of Personal Faith and Compositional Craft in Selected Works of Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)” DMA Diss. (University of Arizona, 2021) pp. 41-52. 
  9. Günther Stiller, Johann Sebastian Bach and the Liturgical Life in Leipzig (St. Louis: CPH, 1984) p. 128.
  10. Luther’s Liturgical Music, p.231. Leaver points out that Dr. Luther worked on the German Mass during Advent, 1525.
  11. Quoted in Luther’s Liturgical Music, p. 62.

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